Featuring artwork by Arghya Manna & words by Dr. Archana Nagarajan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Co-edited by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan. Set in motion & edited by Dr. Radhika Patnala.
Bibha Chowdhuri is an unknown name for the most of us. She was the first woman Particle Physicist in India and, to the best of our knowledge, the first Indian woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics. She made immense contributions to the field of particle physics, but sadly remained unacknowledged throughout her lifetime.
Bibha Chowdhuri was born in 1913 in Kolkata. She was one of six siblings (5 sisters and 1 brother), and belonged to a well-educated family; her father, Banku Bihari Chowdhuri, was a doctor; her mother, Urmila Devi, was a Brahmo (followed the doctrines of Brahmo Samaj). The teachings of Brahmo Samaj remained a great influence throughout the life of Bibha.
She completed her Masters in Physics in 1936 from the University of Calcutta. She was the only woman in her class. Physics was, as it is still, a subject dominated by men.
Pursuit of Science
She went on to join the lab of Debendra Mohan Bose, first at the University of Calcutta and later at the Bose Institute in Kolkata. D.M Bose and Bibha co-discovered the mesons (sub-atomic particles that are unstable and decay in few hundredth of a second). They published three consecutive articles in Nature. However, they could not follow up on the meson research because of the unavailability of photographic emulsion plates necessary for experiments during the years the world was facing World War II. In fact, C.F. Powell, an English Physicist, made the same discovery using similar methods a few years later for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Bibha, thus, missed her tryst with history!
Saying that the conditions were tough for Bibha during this time is an understatement. Not only were materials difficult to procure during the war, her supervisor D.M. Bose was hesitant to employ women, in spite of Bibha showing her mettle and publishing in prestigious journals.
Ph.D. in the United Kingdom
After facing funding and material shortages during WWII to pursue research, Bibha Chowdhuri decided to move to University of Manchester in U.K. in 1945 to pursue her Ph.D. in the lab of Prof. P.M.S. Blackett, a renowned experimental physicist. There she conducted research on cosmic rays (high energy radiation originating outside the Solar System) and air showers (showers of ionized particles when cosmic rays enter the atmosphere). She defended her thesis in 1949. Meanwhile, Prof. Blackett went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on cosmic rays. Bibha’s exact contributions to this discovery and award are unknown.
A local newspaper, The Manchester Herald, carried a report on her titled “Meet India’s New Woman Scientist — She has an eye for cosmic rays”. She was quoted there as saying:
“Women are terrified of physics — that is the trouble. It is a tragedy that we have so few women physicists today. In this age when science, and physics particularly, is more important than ever, women should study atomic power; if they don’t understand how it works, how can they help decide how it should be used?” The reporter was very impressed with her and quoted “I am certain that she will undertake another task too when she gets home; she will try to persuade more Indian girls to follow in her own distinguished footsteps”.
Return to India and continuation of research activities
Bibha Chowdhuri returned to India and joined the newly formed Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1949, which was being set up by Homi J. Bhabha. She, thus, joined the illustrious company of M.G.K. Menon (who went on to become the director of TIFR), Appa Rao and others who at that time were also working in particle physics.
In 1957, she joined the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad that was headed by Prof. Vikram Sarabhai (known as the father of Indian Space Programme). She was involved (with her former colleagues from TIFR) in the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) experiments. KGF experiments involved the detection of various sub-atomic particles using a particle detector placed deep underground in those mines. In fact, Indian scientists were pioneers in building particle detectors, but due to lack of funding from the Government of India the detectors were finally abandoned in early 1980s. At PRL, she also co-supervised Ph.D. students. Yogesh Saxena, a renowned Plasma Physics scientist, did his doctoral studies with her. He says about her, “At that time there was a feeling in the research scholars at PRL that she was a tough person to work with, which turned out to be totally misplaced as I discovered during my work with her for next several years.
Bibha was also interested in studying radio frequency emissions and wanted to establish a centre in Mount Abu to study them. However, Vikram Sarabhai’s untimely death put an early end to her plans.
Move back to Kolkata
With leadership changes in PRL, Bibha Chowdhuri was unable to pursue her experiments freely and decided to move back to Kolkata after taking voluntary retirement from PRL. She then worked at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and continued her research until her death in 1991.
Bibha Chowdhuri: An Unheralded Star of Indian Science
Even though Bibha Chowdhuri was well respected during her time in the field of particle physics in India, however, she never received any accolades that she deserved. While her male colleagues from TIFR, who were her collaborators in the KGF experiments, went on to get national recognition, awards and prestigious positions, Bibha was relegated to working at Saha Institute. She was never made a member of the Indian national science academies nor did she win any awards. A lifelong researcher, Bibha never married or had family. She remained devoted to science until her last days and her last publication appeared in 1990, a year before her death.
It is very unfortunate that Bibha could not overcome the deep-rooted prejudice at that time for female scientists. Her’s is also a story of missed opportunities owing to bad timing. The untimely end to her experiments, which might have gained her wider recognition, also contributed to her obscurity.
Recently there has been a spate of articles on her contributions to particle physics and Indian science after the publication of the 2018 book titled “Bibha Chowdhuri: A Jewel Unearthed: The Story of an Indian Woman Scientist” by science historians Rajinder Singh and Suprakash C. Roy. The book has brought to life the stellar story of a great scientist who was almost lost from the pages of history. Hopefully, Bibha’s brilliance, her commitment to science and her simplicity will continue to inspire the countless girls who want to excel in Physics.
1913 Born in Kolkata to Banku Bihari Chowdhuri and Urmila Devi
1936 Obtained her M.Sc. in Physics from the University of Calcutta
1936–1944 Worked with D.M. Bose at the University of Calcutta and then at the Bose Institute. Co-discovered mesons.
1942–1943 Made significant contribution in the discovery of mesons and published in international journals like Nature
1945–1949 Worked on her Ph.D. with Prof. Blackett on cosmic rays and air showers at the University of Manchester, U.K.
1949 Joined TIFR at its inception
1957 Moved to PRL and worked on Kolar Gold Field experiments
1960s Moved to Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata
1991 Passed Away in Kolkata
Bibha Chowdhuri was the first female scientist from India with expertise in cosmic ray shower detection and in splitting subatomic particle. While working with Prof. Debendra Mohan Bose at Bose Institute Calcutta she had built cloud chambers with limited resources and discovered mu-meson (muon particle). In this image, I have tried to narrate Bibha Chowdhuri imagining displacement of the subatomic particle within the ‘Bubble chamber’ with closed eyes. The story of the image is- she could feel the subatomic particles.
The bubble chamber was a standard tool to split & displace charged sub-atomic particle. The displacement path of the particles creates a pattern as depicted in the picture. To draw the pattern I have taken as reference a the picture of the collision between incoming K meson with proton within a hydrogen bubble chamber.
At the backdrop of the image (behind Bibha’s figure), there is an impression of Kolar Gold Field (KGF) Neutrino Research Laboratory during the 1960s & the machine is a Proton decay detector, used in second phase proton decay experiment. I have drawn the machine exactly the same as used in KGF.
Roy, S. C. and Singh, Rajinder (2018). “Historical Note: Bibha Chowdhuri — Her Cosmic Ray Studies in Manchester”. Indian Journal of History of Science. 53 (3) 356–373. doi:10.16943/ijhs/2018/v53i3/49466.
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About the author:
DR. ARCHANA NAGARAJAN
Contributing Writer, Sci-Illustrate Stories
Archana Nagarajan pursued her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Genetics from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre For Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, India. Archana moved to Europe more than 9 years ago to pursue post-doctoral research. After moving through Europe (France, UK and Norway) for various post-doctoral stints in ageing biology, she now lives in Hamburg, Germany with her family and works as a freelance Scientific and Medical Writer. She enjoys writing on science and on sustainable living. She is often found curled up with her books and reading to her daughter. She loves travelling to UNESCO world heritage sites.
About the artist:
Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories
Arghya Manna is a comics artist and illustrator. He began his biomedical career as a doctoral student at Bose Institute, India working on Tumor Cell migration in a 3D environment, but soon left wet lab research and his doctoral studies to find refuge in art. Finding himself becoming increasingly passionate about visual science communication through comics, he now is an History of Science enthusiast and showcases his work through his blog “Drawing History of Science”.
Arghya, through his artwork, aspires to engage the readers of history and science with the amalgamation of images and texts.
Co-Editor and Layouting:
DR. SUMBUL JAWED KHAN
Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.
Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.
Motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala
About the series:
These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.
There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.
These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.
These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.
Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.
— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director